The fall of berlin 1945, p.45
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.45

           Antony Beevor
 

  Apart from Himmler’s betrayal, Hitler’s other great preoccupation remained his fear of being taken alive by the Russians. News had come through of Mussolini’s execution by partisans and how the bodies of the Duce and his mistress, Clara Petacci, had been hoisted upside down in Milan. A transcript of the radio report had been prepared in the special outsize ‘Führer typeface’ which saved Hitler from wearing spectacles. It was presumably Hitler who underlined in pencil the words ‘hanged upside down’. Hitler was in any case determined that his own body should be burned to prevent its exhibition in Moscow. But the historical record also concerned him deeply. His bride was a willing companion in suicide, but if she had not been, he clearly would not have wanted her left alive for interrogation by his enemies. Death had been an inescapable clause in the contract.

  During the night, confirmation had been received from Field Marshal Keitel that no relief could be expected. And that morning Brigadeführer Mohnke, following the intense artillery bombardment of the government quarter, warned that they had two days or less. General Weidling, who had arrived in the latter part of the morning, estimated that resistance would collapse that night due to lack of ammunition. He again asked for permission to break out of Berlin. Hitler would not give an immediate answer.

  At about the time Weidling was with Hitler, Eva Hitler took Traudl Junge to her room. She presented her with the silver fox fur cape which she would clearly never wear again. Traudl Junge wondered what Hitler and his wife talked about when they were alone. They lacked the subjects of conversation of most newly married couples. She also wondered how she was to escape from the centre of Berlin in a silver fox fur cape. (Hitler’s presents to Eva had certainly improved in recent years. In 1937, his Christmas present to her had been ‘a book on Egyptian tombs’.)

  General Weidling, meanwhile, returned to the Bendlerblock. These journeys through the shelling, dashing bent double from ruin to ruin, were exhausting for a man in his fifties. At 1 p.m., no more than an hour after his return, an SS Sturmführer, escorted by a small detachment, arrived from the Reich Chancellery. He handed over a letter. The large envelope had the eagle and swastika and ‘Der Führer’ embossed in gold capitals. Hitler informed Weidling that there was to be absolutely no question of capitulation. A breakout was permitted only if it were to join other combat formations. ‘If they cannot be found, then the fight is to be continued in small groups in the forests’ – the very forests which the Führer had refused to ‘wander about in’. Weidling was elated. One of the Nordland reconnaissance vehicles was sent round from position to position to warn commanders to prepare. They were going to break out westwards via Charlottenburg at 10 that night.

  Before lunch, Hitler summoned his personal adjutant, Sturmbannführer Otto Günsche, and gave him careful instructions on the disposal of his corpse and that of his wife. (The very detailed investigation by SMERSH during the first few days of May concluded that Hitler’s chauffeur, Erich Kempka, had received orders on 29 April, the previous day, to send over jerry cans of petrol from the Reich Chancellery garage.) Hitler then had lunch with his dietician, Constanze Manzialy, and his two secretaries, Traudl Junge and Gerda Christian. Eva Hitler, who had presumably lost her appetite, did not join them. Although Hitler appeared quite calm, little conversation was attempted.

  After lunch he joined his wife in her bedroom. A little later, they both appeared in the anteroom corridor, where Günsche had assembled the inner circle. Goebbels, Bormann, General Krebs, General Burgdorf and the two secretaries made their final farewells. Magda Goebbels, evidently in a disturbed state, remained in the bunker room, which she had taken over from Dr Morell. Hitler wore his usual attire of ‘black trousers and a grey-green military jacket’, with a white shirt and tie, which distinguished him from other Nazi Party leaders. Eva Hitler wore a dark dress with ‘pink flowers on the front’. Hitler shook hands with his closest associates in a distant manner, then left them.

  The lower bunker was then cleared, but instead of sepulchral silence, a loud noise of partying came from upstairs in the Reich Chancellery canteen. Rochus Misch, the SS telephonist, was ordered to ring to stop this levity, but nobody answered. Another guard was sent up to stop the festivities. Günsche and two other SS officers stood in the corridor with instructions to preserve the Führer’s final privacy, but again it was broken, this time by Madga Goebbels begging to see him. She pushed past Günsche as the door was opened, but Hitler sent her away. She returned to her room sobbing.

  Nobody seems to have heard the shot that Hitler fired into his own head. Not long after 3.15 p.m., his valet, Heinz Linge, followed by Günsche, Goebbels, Bormann and the recently arrived Axmann, entered Hitler’s sitting room. Others peered over their shoulders before the door was shut in their faces. Günsche and Linge carried Hitler’s corpse, wrapped in a Wehrmacht blanket, out into the corridor and then up the stairs to the Reich Chancellery garden. At some point, Linge managed to take his master’s watch, although it did him little good because he had to get rid of it before Soviet troops took him prisoner. Eva Hitler’s body – her lips were apparently puckered from the poison – was then carried up and laid next to Hitler’s, not far from the bunker exit. The two corpses were then drenched in petrol from the jerry cans. Goebbels, Bormann, Krebs and Burgdorf followed to pay their last respects. They raised their arms in the Hitler salute as a burning torch of paper or rag was dropped on to the two corpses. One of the SS guards, who had been drinking with the party in the canteen, watched from a side door. He hurried down the steps to the bunker. ‘The chief’s on fire,’ he called to Rochus Misch. ‘Do you want to come and have a look?’

  The 3rd Shock Army’s SMERSH detachment had received instructions the day before to start making its way towards the government district. They soon discovered that their eventual destination was Hitler’s Reich Chancellery. ‘The information which the intelligence people had was scarce and self-contradictory and unreliable,’ wrote Yelena Rzhevskaya, the SMERSH group interpreter. A reconnaissance company had been allotted the task of taking Hitler alive, but they still did not know for certain whether he was in Berlin. The SMERSH group interrogated a ‘tongue’, but he was just a fifteen-year-old Hitler Youth ‘with bloodshot eyes and cracked lips’. He had been shooting at them, noted Rzhevskaya, ‘now he is sitting here looking around but not understanding anything. Just a boy.’ They had more luck on that evening of 29 April. A nurse was caught trying to get through the lines to her mother. She had pulled off her uniform cap. The day before she had been with the wounded in the Reich Chancellery bunker. She had heard there that Hitler was ‘in the basement’.

  Rzhevskaya describes how their American jeep took them through barricades, which had been blasted open, and over tank ditches, partly filled with rubble and empty fuel barrels dropped by advancing tanks. ‘The air thickened as we approached the centre. Anyone who was in Berlin in those days will remember that acrid, fume-laden air, dark with smoke and brick dust, and the constant feeling of grittiness on one’s teeth.’

  They soon had to abandon their vehicle because of the shelling and the streets blocked with rubble. Their map of the city proved of little help. Street signs had been destroyed in the shelling, so they had to ask Germans the way. Along their route they encountered signallers crawling through holes in walls, unrolling land-line cables, a hay cart bringing up forage and wounded soldiers being taken to the rear. Above them, sheets and pillowcases hung from windows in a sign of surrender. During heavy shelling, they made their way underground from cellar to cellar. ‘When will this nightmare end?’ German women asked her. In the street, she came across ‘an elderly woman, hatless and with a prominent white armband, taking a little boy and girl across the road. Both of them, their hair neatly combed, were also wearing white armbands. As she passed us, the woman cried out regardless of whether or not she was understood, “They are orphans. Our house has been bombed. I am taking them somewhere else. They are orphans.” ’

  The six Goebbels children did
not face the risk of becoming orphans. Their parents intended to take them with them, or, more precisely, send them on ahead.

  The Goebbels children seem to have quite enjoyed the novelty of life in the bunker. The boy, Helmuth, used to pronounce on every explosion that shook the place, as if it were all a great game. ‘Uncle Adolf had spoiled them with sandwiches and cakes, all served on a tea-table with a starched, monogrammed cloth. They were even permitted to use his private bath, the only one in the bunker. But their parents had already decided on their future. On the evening of 27 April, Magda Goebbels had intercepted the recently arrived SS doctor, Helmuth Kunz, in the bunker corridor. ‘She said that she needed to speak to me about something terribly important,’ Kunz told his Soviet interrogators shortly after the event. ‘She immediately added that the situation was such that it was most likely that she and I would have to kill her children. I agreed.’

  The children were not told what had happened on that afternoon of 30 April, but they must have imagined afterwards from the overwrought state of their mother that something terrible had taken place. Amid the portentous events, nobody had thought to give them any lunch until Traudl Junge suddenly remembered them.

  While the bodies still smouldered in the ruined garden upstairs, the mood of most of those in the bunker had lightened. Many began to drink heavily. Bormann’s mind, however, was preoccupied with the succession and the next Nazi government. He sent a signal to Grand Admiral Dönitz at his headquarters at Plön near Kiel on the Baltic coast. This simply informed Dönitz of his appointment as the Führer’s successor instead of Reichsmarschall Goring. ‘Written authority is on its way. You will immediately take all such measures as the situation requires.’ He avoided telling Dönitz that the Führer was dead, presumably because he had no real power base without Hitler. Worst of all, Himmler was at Plön with Dönitz, and Dönitz had not arrested him for treason. If Bormann was to stand a chance of joining the new Nazi government and dealing with Himmler, then he needed to get out of Berlin, yet Goebbels, Krebs and Burgdorf all intended to stay and commit suicide.

  Among those determined not to die were the remnants of Busse’s Ninth Army, trying to break through the forests south of Berlin. Some 25,000 soldiers and several thousand civilians had breached or slipped through Marshal Konev’s stop-lines. Like hunted animals, they forced themselves on even though exhausted.

  Some groups had already made the rendezvous of Kummersdorf, while others still tried to reach it. The day before, another attempt, with a spearhead of several tanks and civilians lined up ready behind, was broken by a sudden Soviet artillery bombardment just as they were about to attack the barrier ahead. The Soviet 530th Anti-Tank Artillery Regiment, which had been given the task of holding a road junction near Kummersdorf without infantry support, found itself almost overwhelmed by German soldiers trying to break through. ‘The gun crews often had to grab their sub-machine guns and hand grenades in order to fight off attacking infantry,’ the report stated. It then went on to make the exaggerated claim that the enemy ‘left about 1,800 dead in front of their fire positions, nine burnt-out tanks and seven half-tracks’.

  A corporal from the Kurmark Division watched three of the very last King Tiger tanks being abandoned and blown up because they had run out of fuel. Even the officers from Ninth Army headquarters were now on their feet, because they too had been forced to leave behind their Kübelwagen vehicles. They looked strange and conspicuous in their trousers with the broad red stripes of the general staff, yet wearing steel helmets and carrying carbines. According to the corporal, they glanced around nervously, unused to the prospect of close-quarter fighting in the forest. But the real danger still came from air attack and Soviet gunners exploding their shells high in the trees. ‘We reached a clearing where one tank remained. It was already completely covered with wounded. We turned away, because the scene of other soldiers fighting each other for a place was so frightful, sad and full of suffering.’ The victors clambered on top, forcing aside the badly wounded, many of whom had unbandaged stumps from limbs which had been shot off.

  Another sign of disintegration was the way that men strained to their limits could explode in suspicion. That evening an argument broke out about the direction they should be taking. One man grabbed another who disagreed with him and forced him back against a tree, screaming in his face, ‘You traitor, you want to lead us right into the arms of the Russians. You’re from the Free Germany lot!’ And before the others could stop him, he drew his pistol and shot the man he had accused through the head.

  In the centre of Berlin, the intensely claustrophobic life of those trapped in bomb shelters and cellars continued. With the total collapse of a structured existence, people tried to calm themselves by creating some sort of routine. In one cellar quite close to the government district, a tailor’s wife spread a napkin on her lap at precisely set times, then cut small pieces of bread and covered them with a little jam. She then distributed these to her husband, daughter and disabled son.

  Many were on the edge of nervous breakdown. A young woman with a thin little son could not stop talking about her husband, a fireman who had been sent to the front. She had not seen him for two years. Her way of coping with the anxiety had been to make a list of jobs for him to do in the apartment – to replace a door handle, a window catch. But now their house had burned down in the shelling. ‘The boy was making painful grimaces,’ the interpreter Rzhevskaya noted while waiting for the Reich Chancellery to be captured. ‘It was apparently difficult for him to put up with his mother’s story for the hundredth time.’

  The fear of unjustified reprisal in the chaos of the fighting made everyone afraid. Women, when they had a chance to slip back upstairs to their apartment, tore up and burned photographs of Hitler or anything else which might indicate support for the regime. They even felt obliged to destroy their most recent photographs of husbands, brothers or fiancés because they were taken in Wehrmacht uniform.

  Few people had any idea of what was really happening around them in Berlin, let alone in the outside world. The Ravensbrück concentration camp for women to the north of Berlin was liberated that day by Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front. The Western Allies also discovered that Rokossovsky’s headlong advance across Mecklenburg had given the Kremlin the idea of seizing Denmark. The British reacted rapidly, advancing towards Hamburg and the Baltic coast at Kiel to forestall them.

  Also on 30 April, President Truman informed General Marshall of the British request that Patton’s Third Army should be directed to liberate Prague before the Red Army arrived. ‘Personally,’ Marshall told Eisenhower, ‘and aside from all logistic, tactical or strategical implications, I would be loath to hazard American lives for purely political purposes.’

  The American leaders still failed to grasp the fact that the German Army was desperate to surrender to them while resisting the Red Army at all costs. Franz von Papen, who had enabled Hitler to come to power in 1933, had told his American interrogators in the third week of April that Germans were afraid that all males would be taken into slavery in the Soviet Union. They suspected that ‘a secret agreement was made at Yalta whereby the Russians were promised sufficient manpower for what they considered their needs’.

  The SS Sturmführer who had brought Hitler’s message that morning returned at 6 p.m. to General Weidling’s command post under the Bendlerblock. Weidling and his staff were finalizing their plans for the breakout that night which Hitler had authorized. The Sturmführer had brought a message ordering that all plans for a breakout were to be put aside. Weidling was to report at once to the Reich Chancellery.

  When Weidling reached the Führer bunker, he was met by Goebbels, Bormann and Krebs. They took him to Hitler’s room, where the couple had committed suicide, and told him that their bodies had been burned and buried in a shell crater in the garden above. Weidling was forced to swear that he would not repeat this news to anybody. The only person in the outside world who was to be informed was Stalin. An attempt
would be made that night to arrange an armistice, and General Krebs would inform the Soviet commander so that he could inform the Kremlin.

  A rather dazed Weidling rang Colonel Refior in the Bendlerblock headquarters soon afterwards. He said that he could not tell him what had happened but he needed various members of his staff to join him immediately, including Colonel von Dufving, his chief of staff.

  *

  Heavy guns continued to thunder away at the Reichstag, less than a kilometre to the north of the Reich Chancellery. Captain Neustroev, the commander of one of the assault battalions, found himself being pestered by sergeants who wanted their platoons to have the honour of being the first into the objective. Each one dreamed of raising the 3rd Shock Army’s red banner over it. Everlasting Soviet glory would be attached to the deed. One banner party was formed entirely from Komsomol members. The banner party selected by the political department for Neustroev’s battalion included a Georgian, picked as ‘a special present to Stalin’. Certain nationalities – such as Chechens, Kalmyks and Crimean Tartars – were rigorously excluded, because it was forbidden to recommend for Hero of the Soviet Union any member of an ethnic group which had been condemned to exile.

  Their divisional commander, General Shatilov, who in a moment of misplaced optimism had encouraged Front headquarters to think that the Reichstag had been taken already – the news had been flashed to Moscow – was now ordering his commanders to get a red banner on to the building at any cost. Darkness came early because of the thick smoke, and at around 6 p.m., the three rifle regiments of the 150th Rifle Division charged the building, closely supported by tanks.

 
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